Golden Prague is as serene as the Moldau River

About a half million tourists, predominantly non-Jewish, each year tour the Jewish Quarter, or Josefov, as it is called.

The Charles bridge in Prague (photo credit: BECKY FRANK)
The Charles bridge in Prague
(photo credit: BECKY FRANK)
I stand on the banks of the Vltava River. In German, it is called der Moldau. Being in Prague, I naturally start humming Bedrich Smetana’s wonderful symphonic poem, The Moldau, which salutes Bohemia’s noble past and rich culture.
Many Jews and non-Jews know that the yearning anthem of Zionism and later the national anthem of the State of Israel, “Hatikva,” was adapted from the same Czech folk song on which Smetana based his famous E-minor melody.
Cities often take on the characteristics of their rivers or harbors as the case may be. Prague is such a city. It imitates the embracing calm and serene flow of the Moldau. The tourist wants to hug this Bohemian capital.
When I think of Prague, I recall the “Golden City.” I loved the cobblestone streets, the parks, the palaces and the architecture: Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Jugendstil. Many superlatives describe this capital of the Czech Republic, including “mother of cities,” “chronicle in stone,” and “art gallery.”
An interesting fact about this metropolis is that it is in the Guinness World Records for having the largest castle in the world, covering 70,000 sq.m. Known as the Prague Castle, it stands as a castle complex dating from the 9th century and serves as the official residence of the nation’s president. Could it be that this, the world’s largest medieval castle, was the inspiration for the great Jewish writer, Franz Kafka’s novel, The Castle? His lifelong home was Prague.
Walk through the city center as I did. Stroll through Wenceslas Square, then through the Old Town, past medieval architecture, past the big square in front of the city hall, down Pariska Street to the Jewish quarter, and then along the narrow cobblestone streets.
Saunter over to the banks of the Vltava River. Set back your imagination 10 centuries ago and visualize merchants traveling the trade routes and arriving at the very spot where you stand.
 Jews have a kind word for this capital. It was, and can be again, a shining light of Jewish scholarship, for it remains one of the few cities in Europe where Jewish sites have been preserved.
Yet, we remember those dark days when France and England sought to appease Hitler with the Munich agreement of 1938 that sacrificed Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. It would take 50 years for this wonderful country to begin to emerge from the consequences of Fascist and Communist totalitarianism. Readers should note that we have just marked the 50th anniversary of Soviet tanks rolling into Prague to crush the city’s 1968 uprising.
 About a half million tourists, predominantly non-Jewish, each year tour the Jewish Quarter, or Josefov, as it is called.
Make sure you visit the Altneuschul (Old New Synagogue), the oldest monument of Prague’s ghetto and the world’s oldest functioning synagogue, erected around 1270. This house of worship is located at the corner of Cervena and Maiselova streets. If you have time to go to only one site in Jewish Prague, this world-famous early Gothic synagogue should be it. Services are held daily.
(The building is closed to sightseers on Shabbat.)
Today, architects, artists and scholars fix their sights on this and other buildings that were not touched by the Holocaust.
THE JEWISH Museum, Prague, was to be an “exotic museum of an extinct race” – that is what the Nazis had in mind when they spoke of a Jewish Museum. During World War II, Jewish religious objects in Bohemia and Moravia were saved, because the Germans, in their skewed insanity, wanted to transform these museums into “museums of hate,” after all, the Jews were annihilated by German killer squads.
At the end of the war, eight buildings in the Jewish Quarter and 50 warehouses throughout Prague were packed with Torah scrolls, ritual objects, musical instruments, paintings, furniture and other stolen items. Today, the Jewish Museum, founded in 1906, is housed in surviving Prague synagogues that were not leveled by the Germans.
So, definitely, go on to the Klaus Synagogue, the Pinkas Synagogue, and the High Synagogue, (also called the Town Hall Synagogue), which was built in the second half of the 16th century next door to the Jewish Town Hall, at 18 u. Maiselova. The later building is the headquarters and heart of the Jewish community.
A must-visit is to the Old Jewish Cemetery, u Stareho Krbitova. This has to be one of the most interesting sights in the world.
Almost 500 years old, the cemetery contains between 12,000 and 20,000 gravestones. In this cemetery, you will see the gravestone of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, creator of the “Golem.” He is known as the Maharal, Hebrew acronym for “Moreinu Ha-Rav Loew – Our teacher and rabbi Loew.”
Of the 15 bridges linking the two halves of Prague, the oldest and best-loved is the Charles Bridge. After making Prague his capital in 1346, Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia (1346-78), built the bridge on the site of an old Slavic fort.
ON THE CHARLES BRIDGE, the visitor will observe a crucifix surrounded by gilded Hebrew letters that spell the traditional Hebrew sanctification from Isaiah 6:3: Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh (Holy, Holy, Holy) is the Lord of Hosts. There are various interpretations  on the significance of these words on the statue. One is that this piece, degrading to Jews, came about because in 1609 a Jew was accused of desecrating the crucifix. The Jewish community was forced to pay for putting up the Hebrew words in gold letters. The Nazis removed the gold.
Legend has it that King Randolph and the Maharal met on the Charles Bridge.
Other key points of interest in the city include:
• The Chabad Center is at Milosrdnych 6. www.chabadprague.cz.
• A Reform movement of Judaism synagogue is at Maiselova 4.
• A Masorti Olami Community can be reached at www.masortiprague.cz.
• Shalom Restaurant in the Jewish Town Hall, at 18 u Maiselova, and King Solomon, Siroka 55/8, are listed as kosher establishments.
A 40-MINUTE drive from Prague brings you to the town of Terezin. In 1941, the Germans turned the citadel into a transit camp for Jews on their way to the death camps. Officially, Terezin was a self-governing ghetto, but in reality, it was a concentration camp, probably without the gas chambers, although there is a crematorium nearby. The Nazis made it look like a “showplace,” a façade for the International Red Cross monitors. Today, the Jewish Museum in Prague contains the world’s largest collection of children’s drawings from the Holocaust (there are some photos in Terezin also). The exhibition contains a total of 4,387 drawings by Jewish children who passed through the Terezín Ghetto.
As a tourist site, Prague is “in.” Perhaps travelers flock there now more than ever because the Communist regime kept it isolated for four decades; it probably was the most closed of the large Eastern European capitals. No longer!
The writer, a travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the just-published fourth edition of A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, (Pelican Publishing), and Klara’s Journey, A Novel, (Marion Street Press). Follow him on Twitter: @bengfrank.


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